Summary

A portion of a page of Leeds Brotherton manuscript showing Pulter's hand

A portion of a page of Leeds Brotherton
manuscript showing Pulter’s hand

As part of a second-year undergraduate module ‘Seventeenth-Century Literature and Culture’, we asked students to annotate a series of unpublished poems by Lady Hester Pulter (1605-1678). Pulter’s poems, together with the students’ annotations, and a series of relevant resources, including a biography of Pulter, a description of her literary manuscript, and links to relevant criticism, are now available to all staff and student members of Warwick University via a specially designed website. The project was funded by Warwick’s Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund, and the software was designed by Robert O’Toole, the Arts Faculty E-learning Advisor.

Author

Dr. Alice Eardley, with contribution by Clare Doyle
Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, University of Warwick

Background / Context

A key aim of the ‘Seventeenth-Century Literature and Culture’ module, run by Elizabeth Clarke in the English Department at Warwick University, is to introduce second-year undergraduates to a wide range of canonical and non-canonical authors and their texts. One of the authors we have successfully taught since 2006 is Lady Hester Pulter, whose extensive literary manuscript remained widely unknown until it was recovered by Mark Robson in 1996 (1). As yet, no full edition of Pulter’s works has been published so for teaching purposes we were forced to rely on photocopies of un-annotated transcriptions of her poems. We decided that for future presentations of the module it would be useful to have an online resource that would provide easy access to Pulter’s text, together with a range of supporting resources, including biographical information and detailed information about the manuscript not readily available elsewhere. (2)

In addition to providing a ready-made resource for the study of Hester Pulter and her works, we decided that the process of developing the website could be used to teach and promote many of the other issues and skills central both to the module and to the study of English Literature as a whole. As the HEFCE strategy for e-learning makes clear, ‘[e]-learning has been criticised for being technology led, with a focus on providing materials, but has relatively recently focused more on the learner and on enabling students and other users to develop more independence in learning and to share resources’. One way of promoting the independent study of early modern texts, specifically through the use of online technology, has been outlined by Matthew Steggle who, in his article ‘The Reinvention of Scholia: Etexts and the Teaching of Early Modern Literature’, emphasises the significance of the ‘art of commentary … as a teaching and learning activity’. (3) He goes on to argue that the ‘challenge will be for students – not just at doctoral level, but at undergraduate level too – to research, compile, hot-link, and web-publish commentaries’. Rather than simply provide the students with the materials they needed for the study of Pulter’s poetry, we asked them to supply annotations for her poems, which we then added to the website. In doing this we drew on the precedent of a series of existing projects including The Minerva Britanna Project at Middlebury College, the University of British Columbia – Okanagan project Homosexuality in Early Modern Literature: A Collection of Student-Edited Texts, and Warwick University’s own WikiOmeros project.(4)

The process of supplying annotation for Pulter’s poetry was designed to encourage careful and thorough thought about the text and to establish a practice of deep close reading that could be applied to the works of other writers. Students were also encouraged to become familiar with and to make use of all of the research resources available to them, including the Dictionary of National Biography, the Oxford English Dictionary and Early English Books Online (EEBO). While these research skills would be generally useful for students working towards a degree in English Literature they also had a specific relevance for further work on the seventeenth-century course. As part of their assessment all students are required to write an essay on a document available on EEBO that has never appeared in a modern edition. The work the students were asked to do for the online Pulter edition enabled them to gain an early taste of the work that would be required of them later. It was also hoped that the process of annotating the poems would allow the students to gain some insight into the construction of, and to develop a healthy scepticism towards, the literary editions they regularly use for their studies.

Overall, the project was designed to integrate teaching with the on-going, up-to-date research being conducted in Warwick’s Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, specifically work previously done by the Perdita Project team, which for many years had been involved in research into and the cataloguing of manuscripts produced by early modern women, and also my own work on an edition of Pulter’s poetry and prose. (5) Students were given the opportunity to engage in their own original research and to directly contribute to the work being carried out by members of staff.

Activities / Practice

Screenshot of part of the website for the project (For more detail please click on the image to enlarge)

Screenshot of part of the website for the project
(For more detail please click on the image to enlarge)

Initial work for the project involved the creation of the website, which I carried out with the technical support of Robert O’Toole. Using the University’s Sitebuilder system I uploaded transcriptions of fifty of Pulter’s poems onto the site. I then created a series of additional resources, specifically a description of Pulter’s manuscript, a biography of Pulter, a bibliography, and a page providing information about how to conduct research for annotations. With the website in place we introduced the project to the students during a lecture, which allowed me to demonstrate the website via PowerPoint and to explain what was required of them. During seminars we divided the students into pairs and assigned one poem per pair. They were given four weeks, the duration of the Christmas vacation, to complete work on their poem.

The students submitted their work directly to me via an electronic form available on the website. This required the student to provide his or her name and email address, the name of the poem for which he or she was supplying information, and also the specific word he or she wanted to annotate, together with its line number. The form could not be submitted if any field was left blank. The annotations reached me in the form of a spreadsheet and I was then able to vet them and transfer them to the relevant place on the website. I exercised final editorial control over all submissions; if anything was wrong or misleading I referred it back to the contributing student for correction before the information was posted on the site. The annotations themselves were added to the site in the form of a glossary.

Each word or phrase for which a student supplied an annotation, together with the information provided, was entered into the glossary separately where it was automatically alphabetised. I was then able to create links from individual words within the poems to the relevant entry within the glossary. Within each poem, words with links appear in blue and when selected a pop-up appears bearing the relevant annotation. These annotations are also able to bear links to external resources meaning the reader can be directed elsewhere for further information about a particular reference.

Once work on the annotations had been completed, we used seminar sessions for debriefing the students and for receiving their feedback on the project. We then taught Pulter’s text as a regular part of the ‘Seventeenth-Century Literature and Culture’ course, using the website as a resource.

A screenshot of the glossary created by the students For more detail please click on the image to enlarge

A screenshot of the glossary created by the students
For more detail please click on the image to enlarge

An exciting, and initially unexpected, extension to the project came about when we received funding from Warwick’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme (URSS) to employ Clare Doyle, then a second-year undergraduate, for four weeks to contribute further work to the website. We asked her to contribute further annotations to her own selection of poems and also to create a short video for the site. Here she describes the work she did as part of the project:

“With the URSS I had the opportunity to research and annotate a selection of the poems over the Easter vacation and selected ten poems as a starting point, some of which had already been researched by other students, whilst others had previously been unavailable on the website and so were entirely unannotated. Online resources were the primary means by which I carried out my research; I relied heavily upon the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in my attempts to modernise any archaic spelling and identify the correct definition for the seventeenth century context and used websites such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and British History Online in order to identify dates and individuals that are referenced within the poems. After these initial searches, I then turned to Early English Books Online and Literature Online as a way to find similar uses of phrases or individuals in other writing of the period. One instance where this was especially illuminating occurred whilst researching a poem which refers to Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle; after using biographies and other historical resources, I searched Literature Online and was able to find many other examples of a similar usage of these two figures as types of royalist heroes, thereby uncovering both a historical basis of the poem and its wider political and literary context. As well as this linguistic and historical investigation of the poems, I spent a considerable proportion of the time trying to identify the many literary allusions that Pulter uses. Again, online resources were the predominant means by which I carried out this research and I frequently turned to an online edition of the King James Bible and an online edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Although these texts all exist in physical format, I found that the online versions made my work far more efficient due to the ability to search within the entire edition for a particular word, character or phrase.

The other aspect of my contribution to the website, the making of a short film of Pulter’s life, involved a similar dependency upon computer software. I first created a plan detailing the outline of the film including a script for the dialogue, the images which were to be used and the sections of the poems which were to be included within the film. I then visited Hertfordshire in April 2009 with my supervisors to record footage of Pulter’s house, gardens, local churches and other landmarks which she references in her poems. Back at Warwick, with help from Robert O’Toole and the University’s e-learning team, I used iMovie editing software to construct the film according to the outline I had devised and recorded voice-overs to connect all the differing sections of the film, the final version of which can be viewed on the project website.”

Conclusions

Feedback from students concerning the project was overwhelmingly positive. Many reported initially feeling nervous about using the online technology but once they actually came to use the system they found it extremely straightforward. Generally, they found the opportunity to conduct original research exciting and stimulating and we received several comments along these lines. For one student the project was ‘a super opportunity to do something different and grown up’ while another described it as ‘[a]n extremely useful project; one that promoted individual research and gave us the opportunity to contribute original ideas’. Our initial aim to encourage students to develop a strategy for deeper reading of primary texts appears to have been successful. We received several comments indicating this was the case; one student remarked that the project was a ‘[g]ood exercise in close reading’ while another said that it ‘[r]eally helped me to think about the poems more deeply’. Gratifyingly, several students concluded that they ‘would relish the opportunity to repeat this activity with Pulter or another poet’.

Clare Doyle, who undertook particularly extensive work for the project, was similarly enthusiastic:

“The opportunity to contribute to the annotations of the online edition was an enjoyable change from the usual essay-based work of the degree course. Initially, I expected to be able to extensively annotate more than the ten poems I had selected as a starting point, but I soon realized that no amount of time spent researching a particular word or phrase would guarantee an outcome of an accurate and relevant annotation; often the most interesting discovery occurred whilst I was searching for information on another poem, and in other cases it was possible to spend hours investigating a word without coming any closer to an explanation. My experiences as part of the project therefore gave me a greater appreciation for the skill and time needed to create an extensively annotated edition of poetry, and has provided me with a greater awareness of the attention required to thoroughly understand and unravel a literary text. Although in some ways I feel that the time I invested into research did not always materialize into useful annotations, the work has greatly improved my ability to effectively use online resources such as Early English Books Online and Literature Online which has had a positive effect on many of my subsequent essays. I feel that this project was especially beneficial for all the students who took part in the way that it enabled us to contribute to the research taking place in the department, demonstrating that through careful close reading, we are able to bring something to a text as well as simply taking from it.”

A significant indication of the enthusiasm that the students felt for Pulter and her poetry was provided by the anonymous creation of a Hester Pulter profile on the social networking site Facebook. At the time of writing, ‘Hester Pulter’ has a network of 129 ‘friends’ linked to her site and from time to time she publishes a new poem, composed in a perfect pastiche of the original Pulter’s style. Once they had owned up to creating the profile, the students responsible, Katie Bell and Stephanie Taylor, put together a wall display for the department, show-casing all the work that had been done on Pulter during the academic year.

From my own perspective, while I feel the project was generally a success, there are a few things I would change. With regards to the technical side of things, I would slightly modify the submission form so that students did not have to submit each annotation separately. The system was initially set up this way due to the limitations of the template available for creating an online form. More broadly, I would devote some of the introductory session on the project to asking the students to think carefully about the words, phrases and images that they would need to annotate. There is some degree of inconsistency in the work produced and some strange omissions from the annotations. This means that, until these omissions are corrected, future users of the website will have to make do without information that would have been extremely useful. I would also take greater advantage of the opportunity presented by the project to encourage students to critically evaluate the online resources to which they have access. Although I provided links to the most reliable and scholarly online resources (such as the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) many students continued to settle for information generated from internet searches, regardless of its origin. I would also, if possible, find a way of assessing the work produced so that it contributed, even by a small amount, to the final mark for the module. As things stood, the effect of not making the work assessed meant that some students worked far harder than others and this at least partially helps to explain the degree of inconsistency evident in the work produced.

Overall, however, we were very pleased with the quality of the work the students produced and were encouraged by their enthusiastic engagement with original research. At Warwick, we now have a useful resource that we will continue using in all future presentations of the ‘Seventeenth-Century Literature and Culture’ module. More generally, the process of annotating poetry introduced a level of skill and a degree of discipline to close reading that could be usefully replicated elsewhere.

References

  1. Mark Robson, ‘Pulter , Lady Hester (1595/6–1678)’,<a href=” http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/68094”>Oxford Dictionary of National Biography</a>, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 10 Jan 2010].
  2. Editing Hester Pulter’ project
  3. Matthew Steggle, ‘The Reinvention of Scholia: Etexts and the Teaching of Early Modern Literature’, Literature Compass 1 (2004) 17c 051, 1-4. DOI 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2004.00051.x
  4. For accounts of the ‘WikiOmeros’ project see Amanda Hopkins, ‘WikiOmeros: technology and textual research in the first year’, Wordplay: The English Subject Centre Magazine 1 (April 2009)  and the description of the project in the projects area of the Subject Centre website.
  5. Alice Eardley, The Complete Works of Lady Hester Pulter (forthcoming: Toronto Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies).